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Calvinism and Evangelism
September 29, 2008
One of the joyful challenges I face in maintaining this blog is answering the questions of Christians who are wrestling with issues related to Reformed theology. I receive many questions from people who are new to the doctrines of grace or who are fighting through them for the first time. I try to answer as many of these questions as I can, though admittedly, a few do get away. Some time ago a reader asked about Calvinism and evangelism. He wrote this: “Given the tenets of total depravity (the spiritually dead are unable to choose God), unconditional election (saved through God’s sovereign choice) and irresistible grace (once God chooses you and regenerates you, you can’t NOT embrace Him)… what does a Calvinist see as the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel? Does a gospel presentation simply provide the context in which God ‘pulls the trigger’ of regeneration and faith for those He has already chosen? (cf Acts 13:48.)”
I understand the confusion many Christians feel when they consider evangelism in a Calvinist context. After all, if God is entirely sovereign, and if His grace is irresistible, what possible use can God have for us? Why would He bother using us in evangelism? This question introduces an apparent antinomy—an appearance of contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary. The antinomy we face is what we perceive as tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. In short, how does our responsibility to evangelize interact with God’s absolute sovereignty in the salvation of souls?
I went about answering the question by first looking at several things that, according to Scripture, God has not called us to do in our evangelism.
We cannot help others realize the desperation of their situation or convince them that God exists It is the Holy Spirit who must do these things. Men are willfully ignorant of them. 2 Peter 3:5 says “For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God.” The hearts of men are hard and only God can soften them.
We cannot convince unbelievers of their sinfulness. It is the Spirit who convicts men of sin. Before He died Jesus foretold the coming of the Holy Spirit and said “When he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). I believe this is one area we tend to get wrong. We often feel it is our job to convict others of their sin. But while we can tell people that they are sinful, it is only the Spirit who can actually convict them.
We cannot convince them of the necessity and wonder of Christ. A man needs the grace of the Spirit in his heart before he can see this. Isaiah 53:2 prophecies about Christ saying “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” Sinful humans can neither appreciate nor desire Christ without the Spirit first working in them.
We cannot produce repentance or faith. Once again, those are God’s works and His alone. We can speak of the reality and importance of them, but cannot bring them about in others.
The Bible also teaches us several things things that we must do in regards to evangelism. These are things God tells us we must do if we are to obey Him and faithfully represent Him.
We must pray for the lost. God delights in using our prayers to accomplish His purposes. We should pray for salvation and pray that God would grant the person a heart of flesh; pray that God would use circumstances, either specific or general, to bring people to a realization of their desperation; pray that God would confirm what we are saying through other people or circumstances; pray that God would remove the peace they have in their unrepentance; and pray that God would put people in our lives that we can share our faith with.
We must show our faith in our lives. We need not only to speak about God and what He has done, but we also need to show in our lives that we have changed. Our day-to-day lives are a great testimony to unbelievers.
We must share our faith. When opportunities present themselves we are to act as the messenger to deliver the message, free from our prejudices and opinions. We are to present the purity of the gospel, not our spin on it. This, of course, requires knowledge of the Bible and of God’s character. A prerequisite to sharing our faith is strengthening our faith by learning about God and growing closer to Him.
We must invite others to hear the message. We are to invite people to church and other evangelistic occasions. I Corinthians 14:25 speaks of the potential of church services where it speaks of an unbeliever hearing the “secrets of his heart [being] disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” The Bible asks how a person can believe unless he hears the message. It is our job to share that message.
So here are the things we need to do—the things God invites and commands us to do so that He might reach His people.
To be consistent with Reformed theology we must say that if a person is one of the elect, he will come to faith and repentance. It is divinely predestined that this will happen and it is impossible for it not to happen. But God has not shared with us two vital pieces of information. He has not told us just who the elect are and how they will be brought to repentance. He has decreed that we are to share the message with everyone, in every way possible (within the bounds He sets in His Word). Charles Spurgeon once said “if all the elect had a white stripe on their backs I would quit preaching and begin lifting shirt tails” (or something to that effect). God has not put a visible mark on the elect, so we are to treat all men as if they are among the elect, and are to share the Gospel far and wide. We need to share it with a sense of urgency.
It is critical that we realize that we are not to measure success by the visible results. A convincing response to evangelism does not necessarily indicative of a biblical method of evangelism. Perhaps this was best proven by the Catholic Church during their “convert or die” campaigns among the native populations of South America. Allow me to post a length quote from J.I. Packer’s wonderful book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.
If we forget that it is God’s prerogative to give results when the gospel is preached, we shall start to think that it is our responsibility to secure them. And if we forget that only God can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God, but on us, and that the decisive factor is the way in which we evangelize. And this line of thought, consistently followed through, will lead us far astray.
Let us work this out. If we regarded it as our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts—to evangelize, not only faithfully, but also successfully —our approach to evangelism would become pragmatic and calculating. We should conclude that our basic equipment, both for personal dealing and for public preaching, must be twofold. We must have, not merely a clear grasp of the meaning and application of the gospel, but also an irresistible technique for inducing a response. We should, therefore, make it our business to try and develop such a technique. And we should evaluate all evangelism, our own and other people’s, by the criterion, not only of the message preached, but also the visible results. If our own efforts were not bearing fruit, we should conclude that our technique still needed improving. If they were bearing fruit, we should conclude that this justified the technique we had been using. We should regard evangelism as an activity involving a battle of wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects. Thus our philosophy of evangelism would become terrifyingly similar to the philosophy of brainwashing. And we would not longer be able to argue, when such a similarity is asserted to be fact, that this is not a proper conception of evangelism…
…It is right to recognize our responsibility to engage in aggressive evangelism. It is our right to desire the conversion unbelievers. It is right to want one’s presentation of the gospel to be as clear and forcible as possible. If we preferred that converts should be few and far between, and did not care whether our proclaiming of Christ went home or not, there would be something wrong with us. But it is not right when we take it on us to do more than God has given us to do. It is not right when we regard ourselves as responsible for securing converts, and look to our own enterprise and techniques to accomplish what only God can accomplish…only by letting our knowledge of God’s sovereignty control the way in which we plan, and pray, and work in His service, can we avoid becoming guilty of this fault.
It is not difficult for a Christian to know if he has, indeed, evangelized. He has done so if he has proclaimed the message of sin, death, Savior and forgiveness. If he has done this he has evangelized successfully. He cannot and must not evaluate his efforts in the light of who responds to the message. Don Whitney likens the evangelist to the mailman. The mailman has fulfilled the obligation of his job when he has delivered the mail to me. The measure of success in his job is to carefully and accurately deliver the message. How I respond to the letters I receive is none of his concern. And the same is true of the evangelist. He faithfully delivers the message and leaves the results to God.
Ultimately we need to understand that God has not seen fit to share with us exactly how human responsibility and Divine sovereignty interact in evangelism. While we need to always remember that God is the only one who can bring about salvation, He has decreed that we will be the instruments He uses to take the Good News to the world. And that is what we must do, all the while asking God to equip us to be worthy ambassadors for Him.